My vegan journey: overcoming the hurdles to a plant-based diet

Nettie Alevropoulos-Borrill talks about her journey to veganism.

A plant-based diet is considered one of the best individual changes you can make to help the environment [1]. For example, Beef contributes more to climate change than any other food; a beef steak the size of a pack of playing cards can produce up to 105kg of greenhouse gases[2], which is the equivalent of driving from Leeds to Paris every time you have a steak** [3,4].

Despite the positives of a plant-based diet, many people don’t take up a vegetarian or vegan diet, as they consider it to be incredibly difficult. Alongside this, there have been many misconceptions, such as that a plant-based diet lacks protein or other nutrients, or that vegans are "small and weak". Fortunately, many athletes and celebrities including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lewis Hamilton and Serena Williams have taken up plant-based diets showing plants are enough to keep you fit and healthy, with just as much variety in body size as omnivorous diets.

Most people are born into cultures where the “normal diet” contains meat. I live in the UK, and the standard meals are typically meat-based, with our most popular breakfast, "a full English", mostly a plate of fried meat. So it makes sense that many people struggle with the idea of becoming vegetarian or vegan.

Along with this, it can be hard to break habits and going from a meat-based diet to one with tofu and lentils is a shock for anyone. It’s not just the food you’re changing, but a part of your culture.

The power of thought

When I first went vegan, I didn’t know about the environmental impact of different foods. Like most people who avoid meat, I didn’t like the suffering that was happening to animals. However, we’re more likely to do something if it aligns with our identity and beliefs. So it can be hard to reduce meat intake when the only meat and dairy we see are the adverts and plastic-wrapped packages. We easily become detached from the situation.

I became vegan because of a PETA* video, “Why Jared Leto leaves meat off his plate”. These days Jared Leto is known as debatably one of the worst Joker actors, but, in 2012, he was the singer of my favourite teenage band. The PETA video showed the consequences of eating meat and dairy. I went on to watch documentaries about the food industry, and the more I did, the easier it was for me to leave meat off my plate.

Documentaries can connect us to our actions, just like books or films; the more we know about something, the less we can be idle bystanders. I really recommend watching documentaries that pique your interest, such as the recent David Attenborough “Our Planet”[5]. It’s much easier making changes when we fully see why we need to do it.

A single step

Changing your diet can be difficult, so it’s important to take your time. For me, it took about 6 months to gradually cut out meat, choosing one meal at a time. When I felt happy with one change, I’d then work on the next. I first swapped ham sandwiches for cheese, and then chicken or steak for nut roasts, going through each non-plant item at a time. Everyone will have different foods that are easier or harder to replace or cut out, so do what works for you.

I’m very lucky that there are so many “meat alternatives” where I live; my local supermarkets have everything from vegan sausages to mince to bacon. So I found it relatively easy to swap one for another.

However, going vegan was harder, since I grew up drinking a lot of cow’s milk, and I adored cheese and yoghurt. Swapping cow’s milk for a plant-based one was tricky. I went through all the different ones: rice, almond, hemp, and oat. I really didn’t like the taste of them but I eventually settled on oat milk. Since I use oat milk so often my taste buds quickly changed, and I now can’t stand the taste of cow’s milk!

Swapping cow's milk for a plant-based alternative has an environmentally friendly impact. Cows take up a lot of space, using land which could be better used for more efficient crops. Not only this, but cows require more water than plants do. And the biggest reason of all? While plants take in CO2 in order to live, cows produce a large number of greenhouse gases, notably in their farts.[6] So making the switch to something like oat milk, which is the most environmentally friendly of all the plant milk, is a no-brainer.

If you want to make a change to the climate crisis, remember that small changes make all the difference. Just by cutting out the beef, you can make an impact, and if you want to go all the way to veganism, go for it! As the saying goes “the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”. Though a better saying comes to mind for completing an impossible task - “how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time”.

Tips for going vegan

  • Create a concrete belief

  • Find your motivation. Whether it’s environmentalism, health or animal welfare, watch documentaries that interest you. If you feel you want to give up, have things that remind you why you’re doing it.

  • Reduce your meat intake

  • Aim to have meat only once or twice a week. It’s ok if you can’t go vegetarian or vegan. Every little step counts.

  • Go step by step

  • Swap your meals. Steak and onion pie and chips for soya steak, use vegan mince in lasagnas and burgers. You often can’t taste the difference.

  • Find new recipes to enjoy

  • It takes time for your taste buds to adjust to new flavours, so speed up the process by finding veggie recipes that you already like!

  • Make a list of veggie and vegan meals. There are plenty of meals, like curries and stir-fries, that are already vegan or vegetarian, and a lot of others can be switched

  • Download The Climate App

  • Not sure where to go next? The Climate App is full of challenges to reducing your environmental impact

*PETA - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, you can see the sort of videos I watched here

**A car with 1 passenger produces 171g of CO2 per km[3]. The distance from Leeds to Paris is 624km as the crow flies. (0.171kg x 624km is 107kg).